DC Comics 'Aquaman' raises questions about environmentalism

Superhero stories love to imagine the end of the world, but don't have much to offer in the face of actual global catastrophes.
Image: Jason Momoa in a scene from "Aquaman."
Jason Momoa is king of the reef in "Aquaman."Warner Bros. Pictures via AP
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By Noah Berlatsky

Human beings have been dumping plastic, carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the ocean for centuries. Finally, in the big-budget Hollywood superhero film “Aquaman,” the ocean decides it's sick of it. The king of Atlantis, Orm, aka Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), decides to return the filth. He creates giant tidal waves that crash across the planet and deposit reefs of sewage, refuse and warships on the world's beaches. We humans befouled nature; nature turns around and befouls us. That seems like justice.

“Aquaman” doesn't present it as justice, though. Orm is the villain of the movie, and he has all of the usual characteristics of villains — he's intolerant, conniving, violent and a lot less charismatic than the hero. And yet, despite director James Wan's best efforts, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Orm is right. In cheering for Aquaman, we end up cheering for the destruction of our own planet.

"Aquaman" shows, with unfortunate clarity, that the superhero film genre is ill-equipped to tackle serious subjects.

Superhero narratives often take on weighty themes — "Infinity War" and genocide; "Iron Fist" and wealth inequality. But real problems generally can't be resolved with fist fights. "Aquaman" shows, with unfortunate clarity, that the superhero film genre is ill-equipped to take on serious subjects. Superhero stories love to imagine the end of the world, but don't have much to offer in the face of actual global catastrophes.

“Aquaman” is 143 minutes long, and its plot is (in the tradition of DC superhero movies) something of a mess. But in broad outline, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is the son of a lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) and Atlanna, the former queen of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman). Arthur is raised on land after Atlantis forces Atlanna to return and bear another heir — and then executes her for consorting with surface-dwellers. Because of his mother's murder, Arthur is estranged from Atlantis and from his half-brother the king. But then Orm threatens to start a war between Atlantis and the surface. In response, underwater princess Mera (Amber Heard) convinces Arthur to return to Atlantis to take the throne and end the potential war.

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Orm's central argument is irrefutable: The surface world is, in fact, encroaching on the world's oceans. We dump thirteen million metric tons of plastic into the ocean every year — plastic waste kills as many as a million seabirds annually, to speak nothing of other marine life. Ocean acidification from fossil fuels reduces the ability of crustaceans to form shells and harms fish species like cod. Meanwhile, global warming makes ocean water less hospitable for plankton and algae, which support the entire marine food web. Because of threats like these, scientists fear that the ocean is facing a mass extinction event.

If there were an underwater kingdom like Atlantis, then, it makes sense that it would also be facing catastrophic threats to its food supply and water quality. You can see why Orm feels the need to take drastic action.

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The movie, though, does just about everything it can to avoid dealing with the issues it is ostensibly about. Orm never even mentions global warming. The magnificent, CGI-created Atlantis is pristine and untouched by pollution. You don't see any of the fantastic seahorse steeds tangled in plastic bags. Nor are we shown Atlanteans starving because their fisheries have collapsed. Orm says the surface dwellers are a threat, but the film never takes the time to visualize or dramatize what that would mean for sentient creatures actually living underwater.

Orm says the surface dwellers are a threat, but the film never takes the time to visualize or dramatize what that would mean for sentient creatures actually living underwater.

Instead, we get what is a watered down retelling of a familiar colonial trope. From Tarzan to Kurtz to Natty Bumpo to Iron Fist, scions of European culture have traveled to distant lands and shown themselves more powerful, more noble and/or more fit to rule than the inhabitants.

Jason Momoa was born in Hawaii and his father is a native Hawaiian, which undermines some of the more racist implications of these narratives. But the general outline is still in place. The guy from our world goes to that world over there and proves himself to be stronger, more noble, and generally better than all of its inhabitants

It's not just the Atlanteans who come to recognize Arthur's superiority. Arthur can actually talk to and command sea creatures. Nature itself obeys him — as it obeyed Tarzan before him. Whales open their mouths to give him shelter. Monstrous creatures of the deep rise up to squash his enemies. The planet is his to do with as he wishes — and since he's our human proxy, the message here is that the planet is ours to do with as we wish as well. The film ends up essentially granting the oceans to humanity as a kind of divine, hereditary right.

Orm was clearly right to oppose this. But noble or not, the Ocean Master's methods are flawed. To protect the environment, he plans to wage a war that will (we are told) kill billions. Genocide in the name of the environment is still genocide.

A scene from "Aquaman."Warner Bros. Pictures via AP

But if we condemn Ocean Master for his violent methods, what about “Aquaman” itself? The movie raises serious environmental issues, and then, rather than engaging with them, it shows us lots of fight scenes. Faced with a demand to pollute less, Aquaman's response is to punch people. Maybe Orm thought about trying peaceful negotiation with the surface world, then saw a bunch of superhero films and figured to hell with it.

Some superhero films have managed to speak to their political concerns with more nuance. Killmonger's critique of global racism in "Black Panther" gets a much more respectful hearing than Orm's worries about environmental collapse. But watching "Aquaman" also makes some of the weaknesses in "Black Panther" clearer. It's notable, for example, that in both films, the political arguments are settled, not through consensus or persuasion or collective action, but through archaic ritual combat. The genre's demand for climactic battles ultimately beats the tar out of thoughtful political commentary.

At the end of "Aquaman," Arthur is inevitably declared monarch and Orm is sent packing. But what happens to the oceans, or to the planet? No one speaks for them, or acknowledges that their fate was at stake. Aquaman, after all, just commands sea creatures; he doesn't listen to them. If he did, they might tell him that Atlantis, and humanity itself, isn’t likely to survive many more victories of this sort. Orm puts aside his crown in the knowledge that Aquaman will soon be king, not of the seven seas, but of a garbage dump.